Monday, February 25, 2008

Presentations 101: Know Your Content

What makes a good presentation? There are hundreds of books on powerpoint styles, and engagement methods, and how to deliver a pitch. But the most crucial thing in any presentation is Your Content. What are you trying to communicate?

We've all seen dry, dull and boring presentations, where the presenter is overwhelming the audience with data. In my opinion though, a boring presentation is better than a clueless presentation. When listening to a boring presentation you have options. You can leave and get a copy of the presentation to review afterwards. You can salvage the session through Q&A to get the presenter to loosen up. You can probably still get something from the's just more work than you'd like. At least with most boring presentations, the speaker knows what they are talking about. Their problem is in editing it for mass consumption.

A clueless presentation however, is a much harder prospect. The classic example is the presenter who is relying on their slides. In this case, the presenter has at least thought through the content enough to get it written down, but if the webconference crashes, or the projector bulb goes, they won't have any idea what to do -- they don't know what they are presenting. Similarly, there is the case of the expanding/contracting timeframe. It's very common when presenting to customers that the timing will get screwed up, and suddenly you have to fit 60 minutes worth of content into 30. Or worse, stretch 60 into 90-120. If you don't know your content, you won't be able to adjust to fit the new requirement.

So how do you know if you are prepared with your content? First, step away from your computer and presentation materials. Now ask yourself a few questions:
  • What is the one message you want your audience to take away?

  • If you were reporting your message on the evening news, what would be the headline? What 1-2 examples or facts would you use to back up the headline? (Remember, on the evening news, you only get 2 minutes to tell your story)

  • If your manager asked for a summary of your presentation that he could send to his boss, what would you say?

  • What actions do you want your audience to take after hearing your presentation?

  • If they met you after your presentation, what questions do you think the audience would ask?
Congratulations - you can give the abbreviated version of your pitch, and you know your key message. Now for the other extreme...the part where you really show that you know your content. You'll have to pick up a pencil, or go to the whiteboard. Again, no looking at your material. Start by making a series of columns. Assign a key message in your presentation to each column. For each key message, list your supporting examples, facts or stories. If you have been following classic presentation training, you should now have a matrix with 3 columns (1 for each key message), each with 3 sub-bullets. Now take a minute and answer a few more questions:
  • If you were asked, could you produce more examples for each key message?

  • Do you have more content or depth to share on any of those supporting points?

  • Are there any other points you are currently planning to cover that don't fit into this structure?

  • Go back to your presentation materials - did you cover it all? What's missing?
What's the purpose of this exercise? It helps you see where you have depth of content, and where you don't. That way you can better assess the strength of your messages, and your level of content knowledge. If you can map out your entire presentation without looking at your materials, you know your content. If you have a few areas where you missed a point, or didn't get the data right, you may need to do some extra homework.

Why should you spend the time on these sorts of exercises - shouldn't you be focusing on better graphics? If you don't know what you are saying, the fanciest animations in the world won't save you. More importantly, if you know your content and have focused it, you are more than half-way to a great presentation. You can better follow the audience's interests by going deeper into some content, and lighter on others. Or you can adjust the timing of your presentation without missing the key messages. Most importantly, you can spend more time engaging with the audience because you know what you are talking about - and your audience will be happy to hear what you have to say.


David Haimes said...

I agree knowing your content is key, because then you can add lib if needed. I really like the technique you have for mapping out the kep messages and examples - Plan to try that out.

One thing I think is equally important is to know your audience. This can be tough when going to a customer, so what I tend to do there is start by asking them questions about where they are, what they are running, key issues, etc. This gives you an idea what level to pitch at and what key messages you want to push to them.

I died once when I presented to a large group of support and consultants using the same presentation that had worked very well with individual customers. I realized quickly to that sort of audience the informal approach where you tailor to their needs does not work in the large group when they are looking to you to be more of an instructor - I learned that lesson the hard way.

GretchenA said...

Excellent comment David - and that post is coming next week. Stay tuned...